323 · 5 April 01
Manic Street Preachers: Know Your Enemy
They wanted to be political. Maybe they could have been content to be socio-political observers, following in the footsteps of the Jam, but they wanted to act, not to observe. They wanted to be the Sex Pistols. Or, more precisely, they wanted to be the band the Sex Pistols merely implied, the band that wouldn't just piss off (and on) the establishment and then collapse in a useless twitching heap, but would rip enough holes in the culture's self-image that it would finally fall apart completely, reduced to a gurgling rubble from which, presumably, although this part of the anarchist's master-plan was always a little sketchy, a new, more vibrant and better engineered social structure would somehow be assembled.
There were three big obstacles to this dream. The first, and most obvious, was that they were never smart enough. "NatWest - Barclays - Midlands - Lloyds" set up to be a withering anti-banking diatribe, but then they misspelled "automatons", and instead of following through on the Nazi accusations settled for a "Death sanitised through credit" refrain that they neglected to motivate or explain. "Repeat" was incendiary, but just as insubstantial as anything it denounced. "Another Invented Disease" could have provided enough controversy to sustain (or destroy) an entire career, but following through on the titular acronym would have required too much research. Their politics were always driven by infuriation far more than by insight. And so songs that were meant to be polemics became self-portraits of polemicists. They wanted so badly to be about something, but only succeeded in becoming about the process of wanting so badly to be about something.
Second, they loved music too much. The Sex Pistols appreciated how music could channel anger and energy, but didn't care about it for its own sake, and so were sloppy, impatient, short-sighted songwriters. Maybe the Manic Street Preachers listened to old punk records the way the Jam listened to the Who, but scholars of primitivism rarely turn out to be primitivists themselves, and arguably couldn't if they wanted to. Holding the ingredients of what might have been a short, thrashing debut album, they couldn't resist adding "Motorcycle Emptiness", "Love's Sweet Exile", "Little Baby Nothing", "Stay Beautiful", "Spectators of Suicide" and "Methadone Pretty", and once they had revealed an ambition for more than three-chord sprints it was pointless to try to go backwards.
And third, they made the mistake of becoming their own story. To be fair, this is always hard to avoid in a performance art form based on a large number of small works, but the original one-album-and-out plan was at least a gesture in the direction of selflessness, the kernel of an idea about how to keep your presence from distracting from your message. But then they made a second album, which wrapped them in the story of how kids who thought they wouldn't make a second album changed their mind, and then they followed Richey into his own head for The Holy Bible and came out without him, and so too without any remaining shred of hope of being disembodied prophets of disintegration.
And although Everything Must Go stands, in my opinion, as one of the most triumphant survivors' albums in rock history, and in an obscure way the half-adrift This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours is even more hopeful still, precisely because it finds them starting to try to move forward again, even if you agree with me that they don't get very far, the lingering disappointment about the band they never became hangs heavily over Know Your Enemy. A couple desultory swipes at America (including a feint towards a withering exegesis of the death of Payne Stewart that, once again, they chicken out of delivering) and a wildly unconvincing attempt to idealize Castro's Cuba, however, are nowhere near enough to turn this into a punk album. "Royal Correspondent" falls back on the most reliable of all targets of British class-war vitriol, not the royalty itself but the people who allow it to continue, but even there the rant trails off as if they're no longer sure exactly what the subject ought to be indicted for. And although they do gather themselves up for one last rush, at the end, all the final triptych can manage is a song about Elian Gonzales (I assume if Richey were still around he would have talked them out of this, on the grounds that you can't critique that kind of culture without simply playing into it), a reactionary tirade called "Freedom of Speech Won't Feed My Children" that just reminds me how incoherent their politics were even with Richey to help guide it, and a bonus-track cover of "We're All Bourgeois Now" played so cheerfully it's hard to think of it as any different an impulse than Shampoo covering "I Know What Boys Like".
But I don't care about any of that. There are plenty of things wrong with the world, and plenty of opportunities for music to participate, both productively and destructively, in the processes of diagnosis and correction, but direct critique is rarely the mechanism. Most of the big impersonal questions are either obvious (civil rights, war and peace, freedom of speech), invisible (all the things that will seem as obvious as civil rights and freedom of speech to everybody fifty years from now) or way too difficult to make much headway on during a three-minute rock song (environmental policy, financial-system dynamics, public heath, subatomic physics...). Most of the art that interests me is not about any of these things, it's about how people relate to them, or ignore them, or exist in their shadows or vice versa. It is about the character of our existences, rather than the logistics. I don't think the Manic Street Preachers are the band they once hoped to be (although this assessment is predicated on my interpretation of what they once wanted, of which there's little reason to be especially confident), but after Know Your Enemy I am very close to convinced, as I definitely wasn't after This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, that they are back on the way to becoming the band I once hoped they'd be.
The key intuitions behind Know Your Enemy, to me, aren't anything about Castro or government, they are that the Manic Street Preachers write better songs when they're indignant than they do when they're depressed, and that the band has a perhaps-ironic tendency to self-censor (aesthetically, if not lyrically) that they most effectively overcome by overreaching themselves. Part of the genius of the eighteen-track UK version of Generation Terrorists, which the fourteen-track US abridgement screwed up, was that it was too long, which gave it the capacity to absorb more deceptively pretty songs without unbalancing. Gold Against the Soul, conversely, was too short in number (only ten songs), but compensated with expansiveness. The Holy Bible was claustrophobic, Everything Must Go grand but haunted, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours scattered but reticent. Know Your Enemy finally feels to me like they're over their heads again. It doesn't sound like Generation Terrorists, in any literal sense, like they're pretending to be nine years younger, but it's similarly unguarded. Maybe some of this is just time, but I am finally able to listen to this album without thinking about Richey, finally able to jump around when these songs are playing without worrying about hurting them. Generation Terrorists was about possibility, to me, albeit much of it cast as menace. Know Your Enemy, even more auspiciously, is about reclaimed possibility.
And to my intense surprise and pleasure, after the white suits and glum expressions of This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, part of the sense of possibility in these songs is again an undercurrent of menace. "Found That Soul", which begins the record, opens with a jagged guitar hook, a hammering "Suffragette City"-ish piano pulse, clattering drums and Bradfield's clipped roar, and although I think the verses might be about detox, the surging choruses are a deliverance we don't need to understand to share. Bradfield takes a couple short, caterwauling guitar solos, but it's really Sean Moore's song, from the deadpan classic-rock tom-rolls leading into the choruses to the brief free-fall when everything but the drums cuts out going back into the second verse, to the sudden percussive sound of the band being swallowed that substitutes for a proper resolution at the end. If Keith Moon had lived to hear drum-and-bass, I can imagine this being his response, scaling the kit down and gearing the tempo up, but absolutely refusing to hit the drums with any less force.
"Ocean Spray" starts with a short spoken preface, about which I can only say that I agree with you, it sounds like it might be back-masked, but I reversed it and it's definitely no clearer that way. The song is a strange mixture, impassive acoustic strumming and distracted trumpet over a steady tick for most of the time, but then crashing, with a "Creep"-ish guitar blurt, into a noisy blur for a few measures. There's not much text to the song, but the chorus, "Oh, please stay awake / And then we can drink some ocean spray", ends up sounding meaningfully plaintive to me, anyway, even though there isn't really enough context for me to know who's asking, or who's being asked, or why they're staying awake, or why staying awake is necessary for ocean-spray consumption, or why ocean-spray consumption is desirable. Wire's (I assume) hand-written liner notes have a messy tendency to capitalize most of the words, including in this case "Ocean Spray", but I'm fairly certain he means sea water splashing off rocks, and not the brand-name cranberry breakfast drink, even though the latter would make considerably more sense.
Probably the closest Know Your Enemy comes to Generation Terrorists is the sawing, battering "Intravenous Agnostic", and while there's definitely nostalgia value in hearing the band yelp the song's unwieldy syllables, I also fear that it's a demonstration of exactly how their lyrics most distinctively go wrong. I believe, from the chorus and "Nature failed me, but then it made me; / We all pray for pluralist babies", that the song is nominally about how hard it is to change anybody's mind (thus the necessity of breeding new people with their minds already changed), but too much of the rest of it reads like word-association. "Into a vein exhibit the derelict, / Secular mosaic distracted at birth." "Cosmetic / Polemic / Distinguished / By relics". "Linguistics die easily." I can imagine ways to string these phrases together to form an argument, especially if I'm allowed to change some of them, but wasn't that the band's job?
Any illusions you might be harboring that this will be an entire album of punk songs, however, are shattered by song four, "So Why So Sad". The band, to their credit, acknowledged this by releasing both "Found That Soul" and "So Why So Sad" as advance singles in the UK. Where "Found That Soul" was fast and angry, "So Why So Sad" is practically Motown (albeit performed, it sounds like, on discarded Radiohead gear), complete with airy harmonies and a very rough pastiche of boomy Holland/Dozier/Holland production. I can practically hear the Supremes singing it, although this is a rather suspicious impression given that I just happened to have listened to twelve Supremes albums in the past week. The song might be a pointed question about why people follow religions that don't make them happy, but then again it might be a random song about sadness for the third line of whose chorus they penciled in "Searchin' for the Dead Sea scrolls" during hasty rehearsals and then never remembered to pencil it out.
At least there's no confusion about the subject of "Let Robeson Sing", a scratchy protest-song tribute to the late black singer, actor and political activist Paul Robeson. After fifteen minutes of research into this subject, though, I'm wondering whether the band did even that much. The line "no passport till 1958" makes it sound like for some reason he wasn't even issued a passport until he was 60, when in fact he was widely traveled until the State Department took his passport away in 1950 in response to his condemnation of the Korean War. "Still buried today / Beneath the lie of the USA" is an allusion to a 1973 testimonial by Coretta Scott King whose "today" can hardly be considered current any more. "Went to Cuba to meet Castro" offers the obvious relevance, but "Never got past sleepy Moscow" seems like another historical error to me, confusing the relative current roles of Cuba and Russia in international Communism with what they were in the late Fifties. "Never met Castro" is hardly the first thing most people would say about someone who vacationed with Nikita Khrushchev. But given how overblown the terms of the eulogy are, anyway ("A voice so pure, / A vision so clear, / I gotta learn to live like you"), it's silly to expect a detailed biography. And they did make me look it up.
The biggest surprise to me, musically, is "The Year of Purification", which except that Bradfield will never sing like Michael Stipe and the guitars are distorted, sounds like deliberate attempt at writing a snappy early REM song. I somehow know, even without having a clear idea of what Stipe was singing back then, that the verses weren't anything like "Deification, / Depopulation, / Crescendo of craving, / Sullen and disappointed", and the choruses weren't "Run away, run away as fast as you can / From anything that needs discipline", but then after hearing how pretty Bradfield makes the line "Liberal asinine pricks" ("asinine" misspelled "assanine" in the lyrics) sound, in the bridge, maybe I'm not so sure after all. "Wattsville Blues" wanders off in the other experimental direction, bleating mock-blues verse vocals over a twittering drum-machine groove, but when the real singing starts the clanging arrangement starts reminding me a lot of Midnight Oil. And the weird middle section of the album concludes with the dreamy, swirling, Bee Gees-esque "Miss Europa Disco Dancer", which ends up something like the ugly epilogue to ABBA's "Dancing Queen", a morning-after in which she will "Wake up drunk and then fall over", somebody intoning "Brain-dead motherfuckers" in a sort of Barry White rumble over the fade-out.
The buzzing guitars return for the crunching "Dead Martyrs", and for a few songs the band reigns in their varied urges and blasts through a venomous mini-suite. "Dead Martyrs" is a full-speed sing-along, a few bloopy synth noises the only outside intrusions into "Holidays in the Sun"-style drive. "His Last Painting" is slower, with simmering organ and some strange percussion echoes, but dies away prematurely when a note at the bottom of the lyrics reading "need more verses" goes unanswered. "My Guernica", to which that gives way, picks up the painting theme (along with the "cubist abstraction" reference in "Intravenous Agnostic") and stretches it across an anti-anthem of dissipating self-esteem in which distortion levels rise to nearly the Jesus and Mary Chain mark. "The Convalescent" is a surging rock song I don't think very deeply about until I study the lyrics and decide that it might be a fantasy in which Richey, instead of disappearing, checks himself into a rehab clinic in Florida. But it's on to the ominous anti-conformist bitterness of "Royal Correspondent", and then the "All Along the Watchtower"-ish bounce of the verses of "Epicentre", and then the pealing chorus that reminds me so much of This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours' "You Stole the Sun From My Heart".
And if I keep not slowing down and giving those songs the individual attention they deserve, it's because I know "Baby Elian" is coming. As soon as it starts, I put the CD player on Song-Repeat, mute my email alert, and settle in for an extended insane catharsis. A sincerely outraged song about Elian Gonzales is very nearly the worst idea I've heard in a year, and one seemingly tailor-made to accentuate all the Manic Street Preachers' worst character flaws and artistic blind-spots. The chorus goes, and I assure you I am not making any of this up, "Kidnapped to the promised land, / The Bay of Pigs or Baby Elian; / Operation Peter Pan; / America, the devil's playground". There's a line in there about Cuban boxers still winning that might be the lamest claim of cultural supremacy I can recall, and the reference to the Peruvian communist guerilla movement Shining Path makes me wonder whether Wire has even the most basic understanding of North/South American geography. But here's the thing: it's easily the best rock song I've heard this year, maybe the best one the Manic Street Preachers have done since "La Tristessa Durera", maybe better. It starts out spare and clicking, like New Order with a real drummer, and explodes into what could be the Platonic ideal of a rock chorus, drums pounding, guitars slashing back and forth like a choreographed saber duel, vocals straining into the upper reaches of the singer's range. "Kidnapped to the promised land" and "Operation Peter Pan" are dumb lines on paper, but when Bradfield sings them I forget about what they're supposed to mean and sing along as if my entire well-being is tied up in assigning something to these two concepts. Maybe I was wrong, and Elian was important. We should have kept him. How big is Cuba, anyway? Ten million people? We've probably got that much hotel space free in Florida as it is, since we scared off all the European tourists by shooting a couple of them. Let's nab the Cubans, sell the damn island to Club Med for a dollar, and be done with it. At least then we won't have to listen to wannabe subversives lionizing a regime so awful people try to escape it by putting out into the open sea in already-leaking rowboats. Maybe that's the thing to do to every pissant country clinging stubbornly to barbarism: steal their children and raise them in Denver or Gloucester or Dallas, and only send them home once we're sure they understand that dictatorships are outmoded, and women are real people, and if you live near a really big ancient Buddha you're responsible for making sure that it doesn't get its face blown off by joyriding lunatics. You wonder why Radiohead have done well in the US, and the Manic Street Preachers haven't? It's because Thom Yorke is impenetrable, which we're used to, but Wire and Bradfield are complainers who just make us more smugly satisfied with our own ways. A rock band so grim that one of their members killed himself rather than make another record is telling us to take our governmental model from a blockaded island with a subsistence economy based on sugar and tobacco? Here's a simple test: when people leave your country, are they called "tourists" or "refugees"? Fuck you, you pathetic counterfeit situationalists, one more poorly-organized, holier-than-thou, quotes-from-bad-painters-infested lecture from your greasy, foot-and-mouth-infected cesspit of a nation and we're sending ten teams worth of steroid-crazed suddenly-unemployed-again XFL thugs to start methodically beating up every last one of you until you shut your mouths, sit down, and start eating fast food and growing out of Gap pants like civilized people.
And then some tiny self-preservation instinct musters just enough influence among my synapses to hit the Pause button, and I'm released from my frenzy. No, of course, cultural imperialism isn't the answer. Cuba has some serious problems, and I'll be very surprised if it lasts five years after Castro before it gives up and turns itself into another Barbados, but until then it still also represents some worthwhile and humane ideals that we have just not yet, as a species, figured out how to translate into human practices. America is a bastion of freedom in many senses, but an incubator of moral corruption in many others, and well deserving of diatribes far more violent than this one. "Baby Elian" makes me want to fight for something, and with every repetition I feel more and more combative, and more and more frustrated that I can so rarely isolate anybody to fight against. It's not the Cubans, or the Iraqis, or the Manic Street Preachers, or the marketing people at work, so who the hell is it? I know, I know, it's not other people, it's pieces of ourselves we have to fight against, but that's so much harder. Battle anthems are designed to convert the usual opposition of doubt and curiosity into unquestioned certainty and righteous fury, but righteousness and fury don't work when they're pointed at each other. So given no better options, rock songs will always cannibalize themselves. Maybe it sounds bizarre for me to call "Baby Elian" a great rock song when it makes me think and behave in ways that seem wrong to me the moment I turn it off. Perhaps, in fact, this tension is why I haven't, even after being so swept up in all of Know Your Enemy, been able to say that the Manic Street Preachers are now one of my favorite bands. I cherish their flaws, and covet the experience of being misled by them, but we remain one level apart, critiquing each other's dialogue instead of actually communicating.
After I turn off Repeat, and let "Baby Elian" finish, there's still a little bit of the album left. "Freedom of Speech Won't Feed My Children", the official finale, seems strident and ill-advised, but then I read it more carefully and wonder. "Freedom of speech won't feed my children", Bradfield howls, insectival keyboard drones snarling behind him, "Just brings heart disease and bootleg clothing". "Free to eat and buy anything, / Free to fuck from Paris to Bejing". This isn't my usual protest idiom, but the underlying sentiments are familiar. The systemic flaws in Western culture are almost certainly products, in large part, of unintended consequences of the culture's apparent virtues. Perhaps the prices for freedoms of speech and religion are moral relativism and a nation of voyeurs and lawyers. You accept free-market capitalism and somewhere out the other end of the consequence machine you get school shootings and computer viruses. If Cuba is a bad example to follow, what are the good ones? Are there any? And if there aren't any, then how is a berserker nihilism not precisely the right reaction?
Know Your Enemy gives us five and a half minutes of silence in which to ponder these questions, time we could have made for ourselves but maybe we wouldn't have, and then says its last farewell with the bleary, cheerful gallop through McCarthy's old "We Are All Bourgeois Now", and in somebody else's words are the clues for the next step. "There's something wrong somewhere here, / So through unclean streets / I made my way // ... // In every town on the way / The people looked grey / The buildings looked healthy". Class war can't be the answer, because the victors become the class they deposed, and the machines gain ground while we have each other occupied. The only way out is to dispense with politics and concentrate on people. Propaganda is a waste of time until you learn to see your enemies in yourself, and an even bigger waste of time thereafter. I wonder if that's what James and Nicky and Sean think they've discovered, as the album finally ends? Will the next MSP record turn inward? No Cuban idylls, no American effigies, nothing beautiful smashed in anger? And if so, and that's what I mean by wisdom, and I'm now another year older, then I guess I will gradually surround myself with beautiful things I'm too wise to smash, until I can no longer tell the difference between arriving where I've been traveling, and simply nowhere else left to move.